The Bravo's Top Chef judge explains what makes Season 18's cheftestants so "incredible" and which all-star judges have changed the most since their first appearance in the competition.
Bravo's Top Chef Season 18 is currently in full swing with a whole new batch of cheftestants vying for the coveted title in Portland. This season, they're taking on some of the most difficult and meaningful challenges we've ever seen in the culinary competition.
But prior to the start of filming this season back in the early months of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Gail Simmons wasn't even sure when she'd be back at Top Chef's iconic Judges' Table.
"To be honest, when our producers called me in July of last year to explain how it was all gonna work and that we were all gonna be relocated to Portland — you know, I was there for two-and-a-half months, and I had brought my family — and they explained how this bubble was gonna work, I was in total disbelief," Gail recalled during an exclusive interview with Bravo Insider prior to the Top Chef Season 18 premiere airing. "Really, when my producers called us to walk us through what our production bubble was gonna look like and how we were gonna create this season and make it work, I didn’t believe that we could do it. It’s not that I was being negative; I [just] had been living in isolation for eight months and just couldn’t kind of imagine leaving the comforts of how I’ve been living so protected and like getting on an airplane and bringing my family and living in a place where I didn’t know my routine. And then also, just imagining going back to what Top Chef is, which means dining around a table and working with a big group of people. All these things felt incredibly challenging."
So, stepping into the Top Chef kitchen for the first time since the pandemic began left Gail feeling "some degree of mixed emotion." But that soon gave way to the joy of being back at work and reunited with her Top Chef family. "I am ecstatic to say that we did it in the most incredibly efficient, safe way," Gail said. "And the fact that we all got to go back to work together as this traveling family that has been together for the greater part of 15 years of our lives was amazing. And it felt great to be back in the kitchen."
Of course, Top Chef returned looking a little different in Season 18 as protocols were put in place for everyone's safety. "[The Top Chef kitchen is] much bigger and more spread out, and all the chefs have their own individual stations. There is a lot less sharing of plates and dishes. The Judges’ Table is immense and imposing, but it also allows room for social distancing," Gail said. "I was so proud of our team, our producers and our director and our culinary team and our art department, you know, every single person who came together and figured out really innovative ways to make this season feel relevant and meaningful, but also give us the ability to make it look incredible, feel amazing, and really positive."
The fact that Portland not only has a rich culinary scene but also ample sites for the chefs to complete challenges outdoors made it an ideal location for Top Chef to film Season 18, especially during a pandemic, according to Gail. "One of the many reasons Portland was so perfect was that we were there in the late summer, early fall, when Portland is just at its peak. Its ingredients and green, and the flowers were exploding and the waterfalls were spilling over and the mountains and the rivers were full of fish. Like, it was just this moment where nature dominated in many ways. And you really get to see the Pacific Northwest sort of at its best in so many ways and so interestingly," Gail shared. "The fact that we had to shoot so many locations outside because of the pandemic made it the perfect place to shoot so that we could really show off the beauty of Oregon."
Already this season of Top Chef, the contestants have been tasked with creating dishes inspired by the ingredients Oregon is best known for, including game birds found in the state, beer, and coffee. The chefs also found inspiration from Portland's Pan African culinary scene. "Portland is an interesting city in that it has a really strong sense of social justice, and [it] also has a very close restaurant community and chef’s community that is diverse and has been a real leader for many years in the culinary space," Gail shared. "So we get to explore that a lot."
We'll see what the chefs can do with Oregon's other local ingredients as they pick produce at the Hood River Fruit Loop, visit the Tillamook Creamery, go crabbing on the coast, and create a surf and turf meal honoring the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation as this season continues. "We do plenty in the city of Portland, but really it’s the outdoor locations that I think are going to shine. The farms that we shot on, the orchards, the coastline, the wineries, you know, all the places that make that corner of America really unique," Gail said. "There’s just so many beautiful ingredients that are such an integral part of the story of Oregon and the story of Portland and what makes the Portland restaurant scene so interesting."
The setting of Top Chef Season 18 held even greater import as the city served as a microcosm of what was going on in the rest of the country at the time, including the pandemic's effect on the restaurant industry, a civil rights movement sparked by the death of George Floyd last summer, and the lethal and destructive wildfires in the western part of the United States.
"Portland itself is a place going through a lot of upheaval and change. And it’s an incredibly beautiful corner of this country with incredible food and interesting people and culture and tradition and ingredients. It’s a completely majestic place, but it also has seen immense struggle this year," Gail said. "And I think that we rightfully faced all of those things head on the moment we landed in Portland. We spent months preparing so that we could create a show that truly reflected this moment in history."
Out of this unprecedented time has come a truly unique season of Top Chef, according to Gail. "I think it’s gonna be a season unlike anything we’ve ever done before," she said. "This last year has shown such tumultuous changes in our world — and especially in the restaurant world — and I think Top Chef will reflect that and celebrate restaurants and give everyone a lot of comfort and a lot of really exciting moments from some very, very talented chefs."
Getting the chance to not only cook but to do so at the highest level has proven to be an emotional experience for many in this new crop of contestants, several of whom felt the devastation to the restaurant industry during the pandemic firsthand. "This year, not only are they getting this chance to take their careers to the next level, but it comes in the wake of eight months of complete isolation, of most of their restaurants collapsing or being closed down, and at a moment that was a real crisis for the restaurant industry," Gail said. "So many of them, you know, just like us, we’d all been alone in our homes in our lives with our families, worried about the future. And we gave them an opportunity not just to get back into the kitchen again, but to be with so many of their peers, cooking, sharing ideas, working together in certain ways. And also competing and showing their skill."
Gail said that Season 18 will really underscore how Top Chef isn't just a competition for the cheftestants. "A hundredfold more than any season, you see how this is their life’s work. Top Chef has never been about people who are kind of interested in cooking and think this will be a fun thing to do. These are people who are lifelong veterans of the industry. They have all been cooking for 10, 15, 20 years. It is what they do, it is in their blood. They don’t know how to do anything else. They don’t ever want to do anything else," she explained. "And the fact that the eight months leading up to our shooting forced them to lay off their staffs, give up their restaurants in some cases, and watch as their industry sort of completely implodes on itself — hopefully we’re obviously getting [to] come back — but they’ve watched this incredible collapse, and there’s nothing more painful. It was such a huge loss. So to get the chance to come on Top Chef and rebuild together, I think was very, very useful for that."
This season features some of the most talented and diverse contestants we've ever seen on Top Chef. "They’re an incredible group. I mean, you’re just gonna fall in love with them," Gail said. "I think that more than ever, they represent this country in amazing ways. All parts of the country, all types of cuisines, so many different perspectives on food from coast to coast. And I think it will give the Top Chef viewers a very real snapshot of how we want this restaurant industry to look. And how it can look and the beauty of what that is."
In addition to all the new faces on Top Chef this season, we're also getting the chance to catch up with familiar friends, thanks to the rotating panel of alumni judges, including Richard Blais, Carrie Baird, Nina Compton, Tiffany Derry, Gregory Gourdet, Melissa King, Kristen Kish, Edward Lee, Kwame Onwuachi, Amar Santana, Dale Talde, and Brooke Williamson.
The idea to welcome back these past Top Chef winners and finalists was brought about by filming constraints due to the pandemic. "I think it exceeded everybody’s expectations," Gail said of Season 18's all-star judging panel. "It was a great idea, an inspired idea by our producers, really as a way to not have to have guest judges on the season ‘cause we couldn’t have guest judges rotating in, because once you’re in the bubble, you’re in. There’s no coming and going, right? So we needed a way to have a fourth person at the table and to have diners every episode without bringing new people in every episode. And this was like the perfect solution to that."
Though there was a practical reason to have these alums participate in Top Chef Season 18, Gail said that no one anticipated how much their presence was needed emotionally. "What we didn’t expect the outcome to be was how desperate we all were for our friends, to sit around a table together and do what we love most. And it was just so nice to do it with people who we actually already knew so well [and] were so familiar with their food," Gail shared. "Because we’d all just been through this very traumatic experience of the pandemic, coming together and being in a position where we could take off our masks and sit at a table and eat and enjoy meals together and sort of go on this journey, this adventure together, was like magical. We all were just so grateful to have each other. And they’re some of my favorite people. And they’re certainly some of the most talented people, I think, working in this industry anyway."
Hearing critiques from those who had previously been where the current cheftestants are standing added a new dynamic to the Judges' Table this season, according to Gail. "It contributes to how we understand the chef experience, the contestants' experience. It gave us more empathy, because obviously they always come to the Table making sure that we remember that they’ve been in these shoes before," Gail said. "And they give us so much insight into how things work in the kitchen, that, even though we watch and watch for years and are a part of that, we never truly experience that."
When asked to name who out of all of the returning alums has changed or grown the most since they first appeared on Top Chef, Gail said "all of them." However, she went on to highlight a few of the alums featured this season.
One was Dale Talde, whom Gail remembered as "a young, punky sous chef who had a lot of ego and bravado and was sort of working through who he was" when he first competed on Top Chef in Season 4. Gail said that Dale has evolved to know "who he is now as a mature chef/owner in his own right."
Dale's newfound confidence definitely comes through in Season 18, according to Gail. "He sort of brought us all together, in a way," she said. "He was the comic relief, and he has a silliness to him, but he also brought so much insight to the table. And every time he sat with us at the Judges' Table, I was at the edge of my seat listening to what he had to say."
It hasn't been long since Gregory Gourdet's last Top Chef appearance, having been a finalist in the all-star Season 17, but Gail said that he also "came into his own in so many ways" after his most recent stint in the culinary competition. For example, seeing Gregory take his Top Chef Season 17 Restaurant Wars concept out into the real world at Kann in Portland was a "full circle moment" that was "moving" for Gail.
As a Portland resident, Gregory is totally in his element in Season 18. "He’s just at home there and comfortable, and he’s just such an amazing soul and such an extraordinary human being. I was, like, awed by him," Gail said. "There was not a single chef in Portland who didn’t speak in reverence to Gregory when his name came up. Everyone calls him G.G. — like Gregory Gourdet, G.G. — and when you talk about G.G., it’s like there’s a twinkle in your eye. And you can’t help it. And you’ll see on the show, because he has a way about him that just draws you in and he’s so thoughtful and he’s so empathetic. And he just understands what being a chef truly is. I think he’s a great leader, and that was awesome to see ‘cause he led us in so many ways this season ‘cause it was his turf."
Gail said that she also appreciated reuniting with chefs she hasn't seen lately, such as Carrie Baird, who first competed in Season 15. "I was so happy to have Carrie back with us, because Carrie, I don’t get to spend a lot of time with and she was with us in Colorado. And then she came back, and she’s incredibly talented. But also, like, you just can’t help wanting to be around her," Gail said. "And she’s thoughtful and just a lovely person to spend time with."
The continued success of these alums after their time on Top Chef is really indicative of the level of talent the competition attracts, according to Gail. "We give them the platform, but it’s up to them what they do with it. And I don’t think there’s any other reality television show on the air that has produced more tangible talent, household names that you can like get up and go to their restaurants," she said. "I could name you 40 more chefs who’ve come out of Top Chef who could have been on [the] panel with us [and be] just as meaningful and amazing to work with."
So to the cheftestants competing in Season 18 of Top Chef, we're expecting great things from you this season and beyond.
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